Every night, in training for a fight or not, Joe Frazier reads his Bible. "That's the time when I can concentrate best," he says. His favorite is the Book of Judges, "because it's about war, and fighting puts me in mind of war. When I go into a ring I'm going to war. That's what a fight is. War. Everything I read I try to relate to my work."
The undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world, if you resist the claims of Muhammad Ali, shows no New Testament mercy to his adversaries, whether they be opponents in a real fight or just sparring partners in training. He smites them impartially hip and thigh, plodding into and through their punches with none of the style and grace of Ali but with a magnificent, single-minded determination to get close enough to the enemy so that his short arms can reach a vital spot. When he is within range of an opponent his fists pound away relentlessly, mostly to the body. Most boxers pull their punches against sparring partners. Not Joe Billy Frazier.
"The reason we don't have any white sparring partners in camp," he said one afternoon recently, "is that the white fellows don't stand up to the punishment. I'd just as soon have them. It doesn't make any difference to me, one way or another, whether they are black or white. But they do have to be able to take the punishment. It makes a bad habit to go easy on a sparring partner. You might start doing it in a real fight."
Frazier was training at Vacation Valley, a year-round resort in the Pocono Mountains near East Stroudsburg, Pa. Next week he takes on Bob Foster, the light-heavyweight champion who feels that his division is too limiting in both a financial and artistic sense. Frazier banged relentlessly away at all his sparring partners with what looked like full power, even down to the swift and slender Ray Anderson, who weighs 172 pounds to Frazier's 226 or so. He banged so hard that even Yancey Durham, the manager-trainer who discovered Frazier and developed his style, worried about Anderson's welfare. The two fighters stood head to head and punched away at each other, both yelling like karate choppers with every blow.
November 16, 1970
"Don't stay in there like that, Ray," Durham cautioned. "Move out."
Afterward, sweat beaded on his head, Frazier conceded that he pounded Anderson's body as hard as he could with the 16-ounce gloves. "It's not good for him," he said. "Sooner or later it's going to hurt his kidneys, and when the kidneys go, the legs are next."
Anderson took the next afternoon off, but at the following session he was back in the ring, getting his slim waist pounded raw by the fury of Frazier's blows. An observer got the impression that the Bible-reading champion was doing just what Jehovah would have admired in an Israelite.
"You're going to wind up with sore ribs," Durham admonished the light heavyweight. But Anderson, a happy man who dearly loves his work, already had sore ribs. That afternoon he went fishing on Echo Lake, caught a sunfish on a garden worm and thereby won a $5 bet from Durham, who had told him he could not possibly catch a fish.
Frazier does not fish.
"I don't like water." he explained. "When I was a small boy I saw another fellow swimming. He was doing the dog paddle, I guess, but I was too young to understand and I thought he was just floating. So I jumped in, too, and I must have gone down three times before he could get to me and haul me out."
What Frazier does like is anything having to do with mechanics, especially the branch that moves vehicles. He took his Harley-Davidson motorcycle to camp with him and spent hours tooling it about the country roads, polishing its iridescent blue and brilliant chrome and just proudly showing it off to Vacation Valley visitors.
"I paid $2,500 for it," he said, "but I chromed it up and fixed it up and it must be worth $4,500 now." A hand-tooled boxing glove surmounts each of its saddlebags.
Durham, a gray-haired man of casual mien, coolly professes not to mind the motorcycle, though an accident on it would ruin what promises to be a first-rate gate. "It's his bike," says Durham. "He bought it and he rides it. I told him, 'If you're going to ride it, be a good bike rider.' He's been thrown on the bike but no bones broken. And anyway, the more people tell him not to, the more he'll do it. He's young, and he's got to get it out of his system. You know how young automobile drivers are. After a while they steady down. It's all part of growing up."
Durham is especially proud of his father-son relationship with Frazier, who, he says, first came to his notice when he was 18. (Frazier says he was 16.) "He came into the gym weighing 235 pounds," Durham recalls, "and all I saw then was that he was a strong boy who needed to get that weight off. I didn't pay too much attention to him at first because these kids come to the gym all the time, then quit when they find out how much work it is. But this fellow liked to work. He'd get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to run, then he'd come to the gym. He was powerful, he was determined and he did not mind working. If they're not there to work there's no sense in bothering with them."
Once he saw Frazier's determination, Durham had no hesitancy about adopting him as a protégé. He fashioned Frazier's style to fit the youngster's physique. Short arms and short, heavythewed legs, slightly knock-kneed, meant that Frazier would never cavort about the ring stabbing and jabbing like a Muhammad Ali.
Frazier, just a trifle under 6 feet, concedes the point. "When I spread out my arms as far as they go," he says, "it's still only 71 inches. So I have to fight different."
Aside from developing his young charge's punching power, which can be murderous, Durham taught him to move unrelentingly inside an opponent in order to reach him better. The manager-trainer resents, however, any suggestion that Frazier fights like the similarly short-armed Rocky Marciano.
"You never saw Marciano slipping punches the way Frazier does," he insists. "Frazier's more a Henry Armstrong type of fighter. His style is the best style you could put up against Cassius Clay."
Durham makes no attempt to dominate his fighter. "I let him ask me questions," he says. "I don't tell him. It's a good relationship."
There is also a good relationship within Frazier's camp. "We don't separate the fellows from each other," Durham says. "We all eat, sleep and play together."
Nor is there any apprehension about the fight with Bob Foster, who has been defeated four times in his 45-bout professional career, twice (Ernie Terrell and Doug Jones) by knockouts.
"Foster's a good fighter," Durham concedes casually. "He's just run out of everything in his division. We don't know how he'll do against our animal. But I don't think he can punch as hard as Quarry or Ellis."
As for Muhammad Ali, whom no one in the Frazier camp ever refers to as anything but Cassius Clay, Durham announced in mid-October he was willing to bet $25,000 that the former champion's fight with Jerry Quarry in Atlanta never would come off. He was, furthermore, most dubious about the kind of gate that such a fight would realize on closed-circuit television. "A lot of places are going to ban it," he said. "I could have had a piece of the closed circuit, but I turned it down." Luckily for Durham, no one took him up on his bet; he was also wrong about the TV.
During Frazier's standard one-hour workout of punching the heavy bag, the speed bag, three rounds of boxing and such conditioning work as having a 20-pound medicine ball bounced off his belly, he demonstrated that his is indeed a most happy kind of training camp. He worked to the sound of phonograph music—a mix of rock and soul, a caterwauling that was loud if not clear. His partners danced and sang throughout the workout. Everybody had a good time, even those who had to get into the ring with the champ.
"Right now," he said between rounds, "I got to get in close and pound them. I got to get my weight down. Then I'll box. I want to come in at 204 or 205.
"Foster is a good person," he said later. "And he's a real good fighter. But why he wants to take me on, I don't know. Another fighter's speed—that doesn't bother me. I punch as I go in. The only handicap I have is fighting short fellows. That's because I'm used to fighting big, tall heavyweights."
He feels that his toughest professional fights were against Oscar Bonavena, the Argentinian still ranked just behind him by the World Boxing Association, and Buster Mathis, who has since dropped out of the rankings but managed to beat Frazier when both were competing for a place on the 1964 Olympic team. (Mathis then broke a finger, and Frazier went on to win the heavyweight gold medal.)
"Bonavena had me down in the first fight," he recalled, "but then in the second I beat him 12 out of 15 rounds. I respect him. He is not fast, but he is what I would call an awkward-smart fighter. You know what I mean?
"There's no way I can touch a man by trying to hit him with a long jab. With my reach it would be silly for me to throw a long jab. But when I get close to him I jab. I step in all covered up, then I jab."
Frazier's plans for the future include a final solution of the Muhammad Ali problem, if that can be arranged, and instant retirement thereafter. By then he will have put together quite enough money to satisfy his simple tastes. He estimates that he has been able to accumulate something like $35,000 or $40,000 a year singing with his rock group, billed as Joe Frazier and The Knockouts, and he has his eye on a seven-bedroom house near Germantown for himself, Florence Frazier and their five children.
"It has a six-car garage," he said, "a basement, a recreation room for the kids and an entertaining room, all on 2½ acres. It's all stone, and it's only 10 years old."
That six-car garage, one must guess, is the most attractive feature of the establishment so far as Joe Frazier is concerned. In addition to his magnificent motorcycle, which he hopes to convert into an "antique," he has a 1934 Chevrolet, "which I already got into top shape," his wife's station wagon and a 1962 Corvette, on which he has been working with all the knowledge and skill that he acquired from his father, Rubin Frazier, in Beaufort, S.C.
The Fraziers lived on a 10-acre farm, which they owned, and raised hogs and vegetables, mostly to feed a family of 13 children, of which Joe was next to the youngest. Joe's father had lost his left arm in an accident.
"So I became his left arm," says Joe. "He'd hold a bolt with his right hand and I'd screw it. By the time I was 7 I could drive a tractor, and when I was 8 I was driving an automobile. He taught me everything I know about life."
Old friends of the Frazier family today see an extraordinary similarity between father and son. "Rubin's not really dead," the saying goes around Beaufort. "Joe is still around."
Thanks to Rubin's training, Frazier is extremely sensitive to any inkling of a defect in a car or even an airplane. Friends recall taking off with him for Las Vegas one day. Soon after the plane was airborne, Joe began to fidget. "This plane is flying out of balance," he told a companion, who could detect nothing wrong. But in a matter of minutes the pilot was announcing an unscheduled landing because, he said, the rudder was defective. It was an incident that turned Joe against flying, though he does take a plane occasionally when he finds it necessary.
Recently, when one of his cars was acting up, he took it into a repair shop, corrected the difficulty himself and paid an admiring mechanic for his time.
The Fraziers were deeply religious. Rubin attended the Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Beaufort, and Joe's mother went to St. John's Baptist Church, even after her marriage. "Mom had been going there before she married," Joe said, "and I guess she just stuck with it. That's where all her friends were. I learned music in church. I never sang in the choir, but I would often lead a song from the audience. You know, someone would start singing and then everyone would join in.
"Now, with the band, what I do is rock ballads. I like to do slow songs better than the fast ones. [Some say that his singing is very like the gospel music he learned in church.] I sing in B, B flat and C, and it has to be specially arranged for me. I don't read music, but I put the feeling into the music myself."
He is thinking seriously of trying to write his own songs, with a little help from someone who knows how to transcribe them. "The way to write a song," he said, "is to have someone with you who knows how to put it down. You got to get some good words which get to the people. Music like this catches the guys because it's the way they live. They say 'Yeah!' It is that kind of song that gets them.
"What you have to do with a song is to tell a story that everybody understands. Just tell it simple. Like a guy is getting dressed for a date. He's putting on his best clothes and he's looking forward to a big night. He wonders if the girl will go for him. Everybody understands that. It's the way life is."
Joe might very well become a good lyricist. Even so, he says that his "big fun is the cars because music has become a job. It's more rough than fighting. In the ring you only have one guy to contend with."
It is quite likely that Frazier's enthusiasm for performing with The Knockouts has cooled primarily because, unlike Ali, for example, he does not enjoy the life of a public figure. Undefeated or not, after retirement he will almost certainly lapse into an oblivion he seems to seek. He is as little known as any heavyweight titleholder of modern times, and that is by his own choice. He dresses neatly, not flamboyantly, a trait that led a friend to remark one day that he was "dressed like an undertaker." Joe was wearing black slacks, a black blouse with pleated silk sleeves and a black net T shirt. "Black on black," he said, grinning. "That's the hip thing now."
He does like colors in jewelry and in his ring costumes, however. On his right pinky he wears a platinum band with a 3½-carat diamond; on his left, a similar one with a cluster of smaller diamonds. And his watch, designed by him, has diamonds surrounding the face, which is red. As for his ring garb, he ordered a special robe for the Foster fight. "Make me a good one this time," he told the salesman. "I want it green, because that's my color and I'm going to stick with it, and I want gold flecks on it. What's flecks? You know how Liberace has his jackets made? That's flecks."
Frazier has been well protected, financially, by a group of Philadelphia businessmen who, themselves uninterested in the profits to be made from the heavyweight championship, banded together in an organization called Cloverlay, Inc. to provide for Joe's future. When they took him in he had just returned, triumphant and penniless, from the Tokyo Olympics. The Reverend William Gray of the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia decided that Frazier needed sound business guidance if he was to succeed as a prizefighter and approached Bruce Baldwin, then head of Abbott Dairies. (Yancey Durham had previously warned Joe against tying up with the oldtime Philadelphia boxing set.) Baldwin was interested, gathered some 40 other business and professional men around him—the number has since increased—and Joe was launched under the sponsorship of Cloverlay. Durham, however, continued to make all decisions as to opponents and to bargain for division of the spoils of battle.
That year, 1965, Joe was paid $100 a week by Cloverlay. Later he got a raise to $173 a week, and at present he is drawing $1,000. He receives 55% of a fight's gross revenue; all but his salary is put into a deferred compensation account and invested for him. Durham gets 15%, and 30% goes to the Cloverlay group, which foots the bill for all expenses. Until Frazier fought George Chuvalo in 1967, Cloverlay was losing money, and the odds are that it will never make a bundle. But making a bundle never was the real idea. The champion's deferred compensation is piling up and, should he really retire after fighting Ali, there will be a tidy sum to pay the grocery bills while he fiddles with the insides of old automobiles.